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Vilsack looks to equity commission for ‘outside look’ on tackling discrimination within the USDA

<i>PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he's looking to a new commission that will examine the US Department of Agriculture's policies and programs for factors that have contributed to historic discrimination against farmers of color for an
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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he's looking to a new commission that will examine the US Department of Agriculture's policies and programs for factors that have contributed to historic discrimination against farmers of color for an "outside look" to identify disparities

By Chandelis Duster, CNN

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he’s looking to a new commission that will examine the US Department of Agriculture’s policies and programs for factors that have contributed to historic discrimination against farmers of color for an “outside look” to identify disparities, inequity and discrimination across the agency and recommend action.

The formation of the commission, whose members were announced Thursday, comes as the Biden administration seeks to remedy decades of discrimination against farmers of color by the USDA and amid disparities in loan programs by the agency. The American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March 2021, directed the creation of the committee.

“We’re interested in their assistance as well in figuring out how we might better expand access and assistance to historically underserved populations and how they may recommend that we continue to work to become an organization with a culture that prioritizes diversity, equity, inclusion, and to make sure that we provide access to our programs and hold ourselves accountable to a high standard,” Vilsack told CNN in an interview on Wednesday.

“I think it’s important for us to have an outside look. There are studies, there are reports that have been done before and there’s been progress done before but there’s still work to do, and I think it’s important to have really serious people take a look at this and give us a direction and a course of action that we can follow,” he said.

The Equity Commission, which has 15 members and will also work with a 15-member subcommittee on agriculture, includes former USDA officials, farmers, policy and legal experts, professors, community organizers and experts in civil rights. Vilsack also said there will be an additional subcommittee focused on specific aspects of the USDA and that the one on agriculture was a starting point.

The members will serve two-year terms, can be reappointed ​​for up to two additional terms and will not receive compensation. The commission members are still able to receive grants and services from the USDA.

CNN has reached out to the White House for comment.

Arturo Rodriguez, a former president of United Farm Workers who garnered congressional support to lead the USDA under President Joe Biden, will co-chair the commission with Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jewel Bronaugh. Shirley Sherrod — who was forced to resign in 2010 as the USDA’s Georgia director of rural development under Vilsack, who was also agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, after misleading and incomplete video footage of a speech she had given was posted on the internet — is also a member of the commission. She is currently the executive director of the Southwest Georgia Project.

Other commission and subcommittee members include Yvonne Lee, former commissioner for the US Commission on Civil Rights, Russell Redding, Pennsylvania agriculture secretary, and Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund. That fund was created after the settlement of a 2011 class-action lawsuit, Keepseagle v. Vilsack, filed against the USDA by Native American farmers.

Sherrod, who did not oppose Vilsack’s nomination to lead the USDA under Biden, told CNN she was nominated and applied to be on the commission, adding that there is “no issue” between her and the secretary.

“I try to look at what can be gained. Yeah, he fired me. That’s a fact, but I also know that the truth came out and he did apologize,” she said.

She continued that she is not “totally satisfied” with the USDA but said of Vilsack, “I’m satisfied with the fact that he’s really trying to do some of the things he should have done the first time around that he realizes need to be done now, and I can commend him for that.”

USDA loan inequity

A CNN analysis of recent data from the agency found that more farmers of color, especially Black and Asian farmers, have been rejected for loans while the agency approved more loans for White farmers. The loan disparities persist as White farmers are suing over what they say is discriminatory language after Biden signed a Covid relief package into law in 2021. It included $4 billion to help pay off farm loans for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers — a group that includes Black and other minority farmers.

In 2021, the USDA rejected direct loan applications for 42% of Black farmers and 37% of Asian farmers, a five-year high for both groups. Only 9% of White farmers were denied loans in 2021.

Vilsack told CNN that providing technical assistance to farmers of color so they can navigate the application process is an area for improvement. And before the commission begins its work, he said, the USDA is taking steps to promote equity, including partnering with community-based organizations that can help farmers of color get access to programs. Last month, the USDA announced it was investing $50 million in 118 organizations “to expand access to conservation assistance for climate-smart agriculture and forestry.”

In November, the USDA announced that it would direct $75 million in American Rescue Plan funding to help underserved farmers, ranchers and foresters connect with USDA programs and services — and to help foster trust. The USDA had announced in July that it was providing $67 million in competitive loans through its Heirs’ Property Relending Program to help farmers and landowners resolve heirs’ landownership and succession issues.

“A lot of activity taking place today, but obviously a lot more to do as well,” Vilsack said.

Asked about the disparity in loan approvals and whether any action is being taken to remedy it, Vilsack told CNN that part of the disparity is centered on the way applications had been submitted by the farmers and technical assistance should be expanded to them to help get their applications approved. He also said he has spoken with members of the Farm Service Agency and “expressed the need for them to work more collaboratively with folks, to make it easier to get the ‘yes’ rather than to get to ‘no’ ” on applications.

“We need to do a better job of providing assistance and help to folks before they make applications for assistance, so that they have a well-thought-out plan, a well-thought-out business plan, a well-thought-out understanding of the market that they’re trying to access. So when they make an application, we significantly increase their chances of being successful,” Vilsack told CNN. “We may find from the commission the need for us to take a look at our application process to determine whether or not it can be simplified in a way that will make it easier for people to avoid mistakes that result in applications being denied. … Hopefully over time those statistics will change significantly.”

Cautious Optimism

The Biden administration is confident the new commission will help address the systemic discrimination in the USDA, and some are cautiously optimistic about the effectiveness of the commission, which is expected to give a final report within two years. Vilsack said he expects the commission to give an interim report sooner, however, so immediate action can be taken on its recommendations.

“The hope is that we get an interim report from the commission with recommendations in this year, 2022, so that we can begin implementation as quickly as possible,” he said. “That we can begin to prioritize resources or redirect resources if we have to do that to be able to meet — to be able to follow the recommendations that the commission will make.”

Lloyd Wright, a soybean farmer who’s a former director of the Office for Civil Rights in the USDA, told CNN he is concerned the commission’s findings will be general and not address the pressing issues that farmers of color are facing.

“We don’t need any more reports,” Wright said. “Black farmers need their debt addressed. They need loans. They are running out of land. They need equipment. There’s just so many years you can stand up under oppression and discrimination before it starts to have impact.”

Vilsack told CNN the commission will work without interference from him and other officials and that he understands the reluctance by some farmers to trust the commission.

“I understand the lack of trust in this process. But you know, I think, at the end of the day, we’re going to do everything we possibly can in the time period I have as secretary to do what we can to improve the situation. And I think the commission, given the leadership of this commission, is going to hold us accountable for implementation, and I would expect that,” he said.

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